Are Mainline Denominations Dying?

mainliners cover final (front)Get together with a group of mainline ministers and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “I’m not even sure our denomination is going to be here in ten years.” I’m not sure why the event horizon is always a round number, nor am I sure what ecclesiastical tea leaves help generate this number, but it seems to be a mathematical constant.

“Ten years? Are you sure about the number?”

“Well, you know what I mean. Sooner rather than later.”

Mainline denominations typically occupy the center of discussion about decline—particularly decline in church membership. For years it was argued that the trends indicated that liberal theology was to blame, driving members away. But lately, even more theologically conservative churches have experienced a decline in membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, a widely conservative denomination characterized by consistent growth during the period of the mainline membership slump, has just posted a third year of declining membership numbers. The latest figures for 2010 indicate that church membership across the board in the SBC has fallen off by 1.05%.

My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has flailed about in uncertain waters for years. Since 1968, when the Christian Church restructured, officially becoming a denomination, it has lost 901,449 members (57%) and over 2,108 congregations (36%). By comparison, between 1965 and 2005, the United Church of Christ lost (41%) of its members, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 46%. And though since 2006 the decline among Disciples has slowed considerably, losing only 1% of its members and .5% of its congregations, the continued downward trend has many Disciples worried about the long-term viability of the denomination.

Let’s be honest, the statistical trend is frightening. Last year alone, membership figures for mainline denominations were down across the board: United Methodist Church (-1.01%), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (-1.96%), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (-2.61%), Episcopal Church (-2.48%), American Baptist Church (-1.55%), United Church of Christ (-2.83%).2 Sadly, when I go to Google and type in “mainline denomination,” the first suggestion Google provides is “mainline denomination decline.”

But I don’t even think looking at the numbers is the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Getting Things Done: Plodding through the Valley of Abstraction

Golden Piano Keys

“What’s the one thing you’d like to do before you die?”

That’s what I asked them. Five of us sitting around a table in a bar after a wedding. You know how those conversations usually go. Besides my wife, I hadn’t met any of the other people until the day before. But having learned that one woman was a marathoner who expressed no interest in running another one since she’d already accomplished her goal, it got me to thinking. I wondered if she had other big-ticket items on her life to-do list. So I asked everybody what big thing they’d like to accomplish before shuffling off this mortal coil.

One person said, “Play the piano.”

Another said, “Do a hand stand in yoga.”

Still another said, “Be published.”

All of these seemed like reasonable aspirations—not outrageous, like becoming an astronaut or becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon (which aspirations aren’t outrageous either, unless you happen to be on the downward side of middle age). “Doable,” I thought.

So, we talked in a meta-way about accomplishing goals—about how hard you have to work, and how consistently you have to show up. Generalities. It was a bar conversation, after all.

But if it had been in another setting—one that didn’t include a long day, a night of dancing and drinking—I probably would have said, “Ok. So, how are you going to accomplish your goal?”

Look, I’m nobody’s life coach. But I know how this stuff works. Having a goal and accomplishing a goal are the same distance apart as fireflies and fire.

Usually, when I ask that question, “How are you going to accomplish your goal?” what I get is the econo-size box of hesitation. “Um … well … ”

So, the next step (there almost always has to be) is to ask, “What’s the first thing you’d have to do to achieve your goal?”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

11 Questions for Christian Companies in Light of the Hobby Lobby Decision

By now you’ve probably heard about the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of retail stores filed suit, seeking an exemption from paying for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act that covers contraceptive methods it deems in opposition to the Christian beliefs of the owners. The Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, saying in the majority 5–4 opinion that it doubted “the Congress that enacted [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] — or, for that matter, ACA — would have believed it a tolerable result to put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing healthcare plans.” Because family-run businesses.

Now there’s all kinds of debate about whether the SCOTUS decision infringes on a woman’s right to make medical choices in consultation with her doctor, absent the interference of her employer. There’s also debate about the extent to which this opens up a religious can of worms, allowing for arguments for exemption from a broad swath of laws based on personal religious conviction. All important stuff.

But what caught my attention was a piece on a conservative religious site, arguing that liberal opposition to the Supreme Court ruling was a baseless set of “ridiculous lies liberals are spreading about the Hobby Lobby victory.” In particular, I was struck by the writer’s claim that:

“The justices did not launch an attack on women. Women can still buy birth control, Plan B or whatever abortifacient they want with a doctor’s prescription. There’s just no reason a Christian company should be forced to pay for it.”

It’s kind of small, tucked in there at the end … the assertion of something called a “Christian company.” The author argues that Christian companies, like Hobby Lobby, should be allowed to express their religious convictions by avoiding paying for insurance that contradicts those convictions.

But, simpleminded as I am, I just kept tripping over those two words: Christian company. That sounds an awful lot like Citizens United on ecclesiastical steroids.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

The Problem With Assuming That It’s the Millennials’ Fault for Abandoning Religion

[Note:This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]

I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.

If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?

But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” — all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that — with the application of a little intellectual candlepower — it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.

Now this shedding of responsibility can come in two different forms. The first type is what I call “the slippery blame-caster” — able to weasel out taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong by deflecting it onto someone else. This is the person who always seems to be standing behind you when the boss is around, pointing a finger at you when she thinks you’re not looking.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Marriage Equality and the Church as Bandwagon Fans

Sid Bream

I remember my best friend at Emmanuel School of Religion, Scott, used to get the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent to him every week by his dad. As a displaced Georgia Bulldog and Atlanta Braves fan, Scott had no other real way of keeping up with his teams—the internet not yet being a thing and all. Being a displaced Cubs fan, I kind of understood—at least the impulse to want information on your team from trusted sources.

I say that “I kind of understood,” because, you know, displaced fan thing—but the whole “Atlanta Braves” thing entirely escaped me. Please understand, this is the pre-Maddux-and-Glavine Atlanta Braves, the Dale-Murphy-in-decline Atlanta Braves, the 106-loss Atlanta Braves. (I’m a Cubs fan, so I do have a pretty finely tuned sense of what a baseball wasteland feels like—but I guess it’s easier to understand when it’s your own wasteland.)

I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to keep up with days old box scores from the Atlanta Braves. But Scott did. Faithfully. Every unimaginably excruciating day. I had a grim admiration for his tenacity.

It used to take a certain amount of courage to be an Atlanta Braves fan, to go to a virtually empty Fulton County Stadium in the torrid Atlanta summer, and watch your boys get hammered by the Montreal Expos—a kind of brave fatalism, if you’ll pardon the pun. However misguided, it struck me as a nobly rash commitment to something that everyone agreed was a bad idea loaded up on a train to nowhere.

Until it wasn’t.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Five Fears That Make Change Difficult and the Ways to Address Them

Packing Boxes

She placed one more faded greeting card into the brown box she’d bought in a package of boxes from the U-haul place. Afterward, she taped the box and left it sitting for the custodian to collect. It needed to go upstairs to the attic with the other faded greeting cards, old swatches of fabric, and stray skeins of yarn.

As long as she could remember—which, being eighty-five, turned out to be a long time—there’d been a women’s circle. For generations it had existed as the heartbeat of mission and outreach in her congregation, the most active group by far—organizing, fundraising, cooking, sewing, comforting, loving, ministering. But not long ago she’d said goodbye to her last “partner in crime” at a nice, if sparsely attended, funeral bathed in blue and pink lights and smelling of lilies. And now, bitter as it tasted, she was admitting defeat.

Scrawled in Sharpie on the top of the box it said, “cards.” But one word could never do justice to all that she’d packed up for storage.

She’d insisted on doing it herself. After all, she knew not only what the boxes contained, but also what they represented. And she couldn’t quite bear the thought of turning over stewardship of that legacy quite yet.

So, as she mopped her brow, she thought of the old offertory sentence from the Book of Common Prayer, bidding us all “with gladness” to “present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord.” Looking up from the Sharpie-marked carton, she decided it was with gladness that she offered up the offerings and oblations of the life and labor of dozens of strong women to the Lord.

But she also had to admit that, beyond the odd ambivalence of claiming this heritage with one arthritic hand and passing it on with the other, there was something else. Deep down beneath the cobwebs and the doilies, beneath the gratitude and the disappointment lived something perhaps even more elemental.


Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why LGBT People May Not Find Your Protestations of “Love” Convincing


My six-year-old is in training to be a ninja. Part of that training requires hitting me. A lot.

One of the problems with his hitting me, though—you know, apart from the fact that wayward blows strategically placed, even from a six-year-old, hurt like hell—is he misses sometimes and hits something hard, like my elbow or my watch instead. So, then obviously he gets mad at me because . . . screw you! That hurt.

All of which means that I have to apologize to him for hurting himself on me, when my biggest offense is just trying to watch a little Sportscenter after a long day at the office, which, in a just world doesn’t seem like too much to ask, given the fact that I generally don’t ask for that much, maybe a little peace and quiet now and then, which, as I say, seems like an entirely reasonable request in a world where six year-old ninjas can hone their craft on the unsuspecting with an impunity normally reserved for Wall Street Bankers and small town high school football stars . . .

Where was I? Oh yeah, I have to tell him I’m sorry for being the anvil he bruises his hand on.

And if I say, “Ha! Serves you right!” if I don’t say “Sorry” right away, I only compound the original offense of not being conveniently soft enough a target by heaping on the added indignity of not being sufficiently sensitive to his need to find someone else to blame for his pain.

And right now I see the bruised hand thing in the church. You know what I’m talking about, right? The company of the aggrieved is alive and well in the church when it comes to the whole LGBT thing.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Tingling Masses of Availability: Changing Congregational Expectations

Jello Mold

Tingling Masses of Availability

I had a professor in seminary who told us that when he was a parish minister he used to require, as a condition of employment, four weeks vacation every year—which he took all at one time. He said that he required the better part of two weeks just to start feeling relaxed.

I hear that.

He also said that when he went on vacation, he would go to a cabin without a phone–this was, of course, before cell phones and email. He did that intentionally so that he would be hard to reach. His secretary knew where he was, but the only way to get ahold of him was by calling the state police, who would then have to make a trip out to the cabin. Not impossible, but difficult enough to dissuade casual contact.

Making himself difficult to reach, he said, was the point. He wanted his parishioners to have to make a decision about whether their need was urgent enough to have to call the state police in order to get it addressed.

I love that.

Seminary students were horrified–as were his parishioners, I imagine, when he first explained it to them. “What if someone needed you?”

“I didn’t go to the moon. I simply made them make decisions about what ‘need’ means. People often define urgency in ways favorable to their own understanding of the world. Is Aunt Gladys’s bunion surgery an emergency? Is the failure to locate the toner cartridge for the copying machine urgent? Is misspelling the matriarch of the church’s name on the Christmas Bazaar literature a reason to go to DEFCON 1? Maybe. But why should the ministeralways have to decide what’s urgent? By going away like this, I tried to help the congregation take on some of the responsibility for its own care, by discerning what truly needed my attention from that which merely ‘felt’ urgent to each parishioner.”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Paracosm: Playing in a New World with a Different Set of Rules

When I teach Theodicy (i.e., the problem of evil and suffering) to my university students, I start out by playing a game of hangman. I draw out a random number of blanks, and start asking for letters.

“S? No.”

“R? Nope.”

“E? Sorry.”

I doesn’t take long before I have a couple of blanks filled with X or Q. I might randomly add another space or two. This usually brings cries of protest.

Finally, the figure fills out. They lose.

Now they’re really howling. “There isn’t any set of English words with those letters!”

“Do you want to know what the phrase is?” So, I start writing on the board:Lawlessness and Chaos.

Sheer frustration. Somebody, usually earnest and sitting in the front row, someone used to school making sense, yells out, “That’s not fair.”

So, I ask, “How do you like it when somebody doesn’t follow the rules? Hard to play the game when someone keeps changing them, isn’t it?”

They don’t like it … not one bit.

But then again, nobody does, do they? We like consistency and predictability. We don’t like the thought that lawlessness and chaos might insinuate themselves into the otherwise stable taken-for-grantedness of our lives.

One of the reasons, people have such a difficult time with the question of evil and suffering is that it usually represents a deviation from the way our middle class American lives are lived.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

What if Small Is the New Big?

small big

Bookstores and Our Relationship to “Bigness”

As a kid growing up, almost all of the bookstores I knew about were found in malls—B. Dalton and Walden Books. You could expect to find one (sometimes two if the mall were big enough) in almost every mall. These bookstores didn’t carry an extensive inventory—mostly best sellers, coffee table books, children’s books, magazines, and so on. The experience was about buying—browse if you must, but find what you want, buy it, then get back to the rest of your business at the mall. They had no chairs, no coffee. It was a place to stop in and take a break from doing something else. The strategy wasn’t about great selection; it was about ubiquity: “We’re everywhere, and if we don’t have it, we can order it.”

As the 1990s unfolded, however, the ubiquity of mall bookstores began to decline. People’s relationship to books and the stores that sold them began to change with the increasing popularity of a couple of new chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and their imitators. These stores carried much more substantial inventory, and they appealed to people’s book buying experience. These new bookstores made an attempt to appear like a cross between a retail library and a coffee shop—come in, browse, relax, read a little, and have a latte. They provided comfortable chairs that they actually seemed to want you to sit down in, new and interesting music softly played, grad students with tattoos and multiple piercings, and a crap ton of books that allowed you to discover new authors and subjects you didn’t know about. The strategy was about great selection and an inviting experience—”We’ve got stuff you didn’t even know you wanted, which you get to explore at your leisure.”

But as the Internet realized popularity, a new kind of book buying experience emerged—online shopping, led principally by Amazon. Amazon and the other online bookstores boasted a nearly exhaustive inventory that could be accessed from the comfort of your own living room. What they gave up in ambience, they made up for in convenience. Not only could you order books and have them shipped straight to your door, you could order just about anything else—from TVs to hernia belts. The strategy centered on almost unlimited selection available with unbelievable convenience—”We’ve got just about everything, and you don’t even have to put down your Mountain Dew to get it.”

Things really started to change, however, with the advent of e-books. Amazon introduced digital books that gave people the convenience of online ordering coupled with instant online delivery. There was almost no waiting at all. You could have a new book in seconds, no matter where you were.

Still, after the big chain bookstores almost crushed them, and after Amazon and e-books almost crushed the big chain bookstores, some local independent bookstores have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. How do they do it?

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .